Batta B, Battambang!!

Trip Start Apr 23, 2011
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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Friday, June 18, 2010

Another uneventful bus journey in the local bus saw us in Battambang by early afternoon. A recommendation from an English couple for a great guesthouse was a winner and we holed up in the friendly Seng Haut. The mandatory pre-requisites more than met. Clean, cheap, private bathroom and, recently, AC. $12/night and it had a roof terrace from which we could watch the afternoon storms roll in.

By 4pm we had sorted the next days activities with Noreo, the in-house guide and tuk-tuk driver and set out to explore the town. It was a bit hard to believe that this was the number 2 city in Cambodia. The streets were relatively quiet and orderly. There was none of the sense of "business" present in the capital and Tuk Tuk drivers were more interested in the locals than the tourists.

A lap around town led us to the promenade on the far side of the river. As the cool of the evening started to move in, the locals were out in their droves to enjoy it. Once again we witnessed competing exercise/dance classes, power walkers, families strolling with ice-creams and youngsters playing hackey sack and volleyball. Public Health authorities were obviously making an impact with the message on exercise being good for ones health.

The next day we set off to explore “The South” in Norkeo's Tuk Tuk. We quickly departed t. he city outskirts and headed into the country-side towards our first stop Wat Ek Phnom and the Killing Caves”. At the bottom of the hill/mountain we had a choice of walking up or paying/hitching on the back of a moto. Keen to get more exercise and start to prevent a repeat of the exhaustion experienced at Bokor, we enthusiastically chose to walk. About 300m up the path and I was left wondering if we had made the right decision. The temperature must have been nudging 40 degrees  C at a minimum and the air closed in on my lungs.

Pouring with sweat and breathing heavily we reached the caves. Noreo explained that over 10000 Cambodians had met their death here, many women and children. Not wanting to waste bullets, the Khmer Rouge had simply hurled people t their deaths or made them jump, many of them not killed in the initial fall and left to die in what can only have been agonising pain.

Sobered by the thoughts of what had happened in the caves we trudged in relative silence up to the temple on the top of the hill. Its commanding position made for magnificent views of the surrounding area.

The walk back down was far easier on the lungs but it still took a good half hour and some serious rehydration before we set off tour next stop.

The ride through the countryside and villages had me re-evaluating my initial impression in Phnom Penh that Cambodians, in general, were doing OK. The poverty here rivalled anything we had seen in other parts of Asia, Africa, Central or South America. It was hard to comprehend how the tiny businesses that did exist could survive. And yet the kids were still laughing and playing, amusing themselves with whatever they could find – sticks, stones, puddles......

My very basic knowledge of economics could not compute how the margins, volume and stock levels witnessed could equal a decent living?? And yet every little stall had a big orange esky that would have cost at least $300 in Australia, refreshed daily by the “ice man” to ensure we could, should we have needed, get a cold drink almost anywhere. The ice thing had me stumped as well. I saw the truck one day- an open trailer on the back with a huge block of ice about 1.5m wide x 3m long x 0.5m thick. The ice man simply chiselled off the required amount of ice for each little stall.  How the hell the ice didn’t melt in the heat before it reached the outskirts of town had me beat.

Stop number 2 was an Angkoran temple – Wat Banan. 300 plus very steep, uneven steps led to the top. Once again we sweated an ocean on our ascent and at the top were rewarded with awesome views along with a reinvigorating breeze. We sat for a while taking it all in and once recovered eschewed the easy route down on the path, choosing instead to torture knees and ankles as we jolted our way down.

Last stop for the day was to be the “Bamboo Railway”. We’d seen it on Getaway and read about it in the Lonely Planet and yet it was totally different to what I had expected. Firstly, there was the matter of payment. $5 each that went to the fat lazy official sitting about collecting the “fee”. Secondly, was the fragility of the structure we were about to board. Thin bamboo slats, loosely slung together, perched on two axles, powered by a small engine, not unlike those that powered the long boats. Ingenious! Thirdly, was the speed that they travelled at. Far, far too fast to be sensible.  We quickly achieved what felt like terminal speed, hurtling along an uneven track, regularly being jolted violently as we hit the uneven bits (and there were many!!!). The young lad piloting us only slowed down if it looked as though we might hit a stray cow, dog or villager wandering on the tracks OR stop if we met another “carriage”, which we regularly did. The rule appeared to be that the platform with the least amount of passengers or freight got off the tracks to let the other pass. It only took a matter of minutes for the platform and axles to be removed and then reassembled on the other side.

The whole experience was novel, exhilarating and, unfortunately for future tourists and the locals that actually used it as an important lifeline, closing next month so the government could build a new railway.

As the sun started to set, Noreo took us back to Battamang. It had been a full and very interesting day.

Day two of our Tour de Battambang was to take us to the North.  We set out through to the outskirts of town through crowded bustling streets. As we moved outwards, the structures deteriorated into dilapidated huts interspersed with the occasional luxury house that screamed “Aren’t they doing well!” We just thought we’d build this next door to your stick shack to exaggerate just how well!

Our first cultural experience for the day was a visit to the local lady making sticky rice encased in bamboo. Working diligently underneath her hut, she retained an air of elegance and dignity as she prepared a local staple.

Second stop was the fish paste factory, another staple in the khmer diet. The malodorous stench warned us well before we actually arrived at the rickety structure housing all matter of large vats of fish gutz, flesh and blood in various stages of being made into paste. A mere slip of a girl looked like she was running the place swaggering giving orders. One moment she was up to her elbows in blood and gutz giving it a good stir, the next she was answering her mobile...all in one smooth action and without even towelling off!!! Centuries of tradition meets the onslaught of technology.

Next stop – the rice paper makers. I can’t call this anything resembling a “factory”!! It was really just a woman and her daughter under their bamboo shack with a vat of starchy white substance, a hot plate, a heap of bamboo racks and a big stack of sawdust to feed the fire. For over 10 hours a day she squats in the same position, churning out the wraps like clockwork. They can make up to 3000 per day and look just like the “bought ones”. It makes me wonder if the ones we pick up in china town aren’t made in exactly this way?

After working through three very important staples in Khmer cuisine it was a big thump back down to reality with another memorial to those killed by the Khmer Rouge. Graphic carvings with detailed descriptions of torture and mayhem adorned a very simple temple filled with skulls and bones of the dead. All Norea had to say was that they were very “stupid people” who had committed these deeds. I have no idea how these people can be so forgiving. I would have tried to hunt down and kill every last one of them or die trying.

Noreo drove us back to town and we went to print out some of the photos we had taken over the last two days so he could use them in enticing other tourists. It was actually strange to see them printed out now we are so used to seeing them digitally and were very e pretty chuffed with how some of them had turned out.

All up, Battambang was an unexpected jewel in our travels in Cambodia. It felt like we had managed to get away from the usual tourist haunts even though we know this was only because it was low season. We had been fortunate to witness and experience khmer people as they went about their daily lives. The gentle Noreo had added to this experience through his explanation of how things worked. At $15/day for both of us, he was worth every penny.
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